Future of Work Wednesday: Why Employees Won't Accept Full-Time In-Office

Britta Schellenberg
Britta Schellenberg
Published on 
5.4.2022

According to the most recent Future Forum Pulse survey (more on this later), 34% of global knowledge workers are back working in the office full-time. But the pushback from employees against the most aggressive Return to Office (RTO) plans has been so forceful that many employers have been compelled to soften their RTO stances to prevent widespread resignations and other forms of resistance. 

An Ongoing Push and Pull

JP Morgan Chase and its outspoken CEO Jamie Dimon, perhaps the most vocal proponent of “let’s get back to the old 9-to-5 of 2019,” has been forced to soften their RTO plan that asked everyone to return to the office five days per week. Dimon wrote, in a recent letter to shareholders, that “working from home will become more permanent in American business.” 

Jamie Dimon accepting hybrid work is a bit like Cookie Monster choosing broccoli over Oreos – off-putting and surprising. Just because employers might retreat, at least temporarily, in the face of employee pushback doesn’t mean they’ll stop fighting to make the office the default workspace (again). 

A Slow Drip Return Won't Make Full-Time Office Work Stick

Rather than simply mandating that employees come back to the office five days a week (as JP Morgan tried to do), many organizations are now playing “boil the frog.” 

The game begins with asking employees back into the office at least one day per week, then moves to two days, then three, and so on. The main idea is that if employers keep turning up the heat slowly over time, employees won’t even notice as they’re being boiled like a frog in a pot of water (i.e., reconditioned to view the office as their default workspace). 

Former Google HR Director Lazlo Bock explained the frog boiling strategy during a recent Bloomberg interview: "There will be some gamesmanship driving [employees] back to the office. The purpose of the ‘boil the frog method’ [is] to do it subtly and thereby avoid difficult questions and conflict.” Employers might retreat but won’t surrender the idea of returning to the pre-pandemic “normal” office.

Mutual trust and respect are the core values of employee experience – and are also the core values of every sustainable human relationship. When you try to manipulate someone, you diminish trust and respect. Employees, especially the most in-demand talent, have options around who they work for, and they’re increasingly willing to leave employers who deny them flexibility, trust, and respect.

Future Forum: Nurture Engagement, Don't Mandate Attendance

Being tricked into doing something  is probably not a great employee experience. Future Forum just released its Spring 2022 survey of over 10,000 global knowledge workers: it’s a recurring survey related to employee experience. The latest findings show that as more employees (now 34%) return to the office full-time, work-related stress and anxiety have hit their highest levels since the survey began two years ago.

Those employees who returned to the office full-time had much higher work-related stress and anxiety than hybrid and remote workers, the survey found:

  • Employees returning to the office F/T saw a steep decline in overall satisfaction with their working environment, compared to remote and hybrid workers. 
  • Employees returning to the office F/T saw a significant worsening of their work-related stress and anxiety, compared to remote and hybrid workers.

These findings are also connected to increased employee churn, which is bad news (but not surprising news) for employers who seek to boil frogs:

  • Employees with little or no ability to set their own work hours are 2.6x as likely to look for a new job in the coming year, compared to employees with schedule flexibility.
  • The number of working mothers who want location flexibility rose to 82%, an all-time high. With more working mothers demanding workspace flexibility, and more employers limiting it , working mothers will be the hardest hit and likely become the first to jump ship.

Perhaps worst of all, the latest Future Forum survey exposed the profound hypocrisy of executives who want lure their employees back, but who are determined to maintain workspace flexibility for themselves:

  • Executives are half as likely to be working in the office full-time as their non-executives colleagues, according to the survey.
  • Executives also report having about half the work-related stress and anxiety as non-executives. As they turn up the heat on employees to RTO, they can keep cool as they WFH.

The Great Resignation Carries On: Get Flexible Fast

The Future Forum survey is clear about the relationship between employees being compelled back into the office full time and diminishing employee experience: 

“With this shift, employee sentiment has dropped to near-record lows . . . employers will pay a price for this discontent: Workers who say that they are unsatisfied with their current level of flexibility—both in where and when they work—are now three times as likely to say they will “definitely” look for a new job in the coming year, compared to those who report satisfaction with their work flexibility.”

What would happen if employers trusted their talent enough to actually listen to, and accommodate, them? My hunch is that employee experience, productivity, and retention numbers would improve dramatically. And yes, trusting and communicating are hard, as is changing leadership approaches and accommodating employee demands. But listening to employees is also a firmer foundation for the future of work than boiling them like frogs.